my clock radio woke me up everyday with the rock and roll i wanted to be able to play. instead, all i had was a piano and i hated to practice. i blamed the Bb in polly wolly doodle.
i just couldn’t handle the black keys. nothing sounded right. i played my radio instead.
one day the susquehanna river rose up and swallowed our home. it splintered the piano to pieces. i almost felt bad. i was 15.
when we moved to a new house, and now had an electric piano that sounded more like the radio, i began to explore piano music at the local record shop on my own. i had no one to guide me.
first: i wanted to rock. my first influence was ian hunter from mott the hoople and his song “all the way to mephis”. that signature lick was rock n roll simple; it just went down the scale playing octaves in Ab. bam.
second: the blues came calling. there were a lot of 99 cent albums back then in the cheap bins (not a trash can, but a section on the shelves where they put albums in to sell) and i would take a chance on any of them that had pianos on the front cover. this is where i became familiar with the recordings ofchampion jack dupree, otis spann and memphis slim. their sound allowed the piano to take control and rock in a whole other way than the current rock on the radio. it was a hauntingly addictive sound; lonesome but brash. random and free. rhythmic and improvised. this was the raw piano i needed.
listen to “the grinder man” by memphis slim to get what i’m saying, or the roomy sound of “it must’ve been the devil” by otis spann. but take in “camille” by champion jack dupree and you can here that slinky groove and lightly distorted tone that satisfied my world. i had found the home of the piano now. and it found me too.
third: all that jazz. what were those mysterious albums in the $1.99 cent jazz bins? man. those album covers promised a whole other experience. and why are they all wearing suits ? here we go, man. the world of Bb was about to come in big time.
the funny thing is i had no one to guide me. no one to point the way. i was on my own in a small pennsylvania town. a new town. the one we had been evacuated to after the flood wiped out our old town. i didn’t have any friends. i was alone with my explorations, which probably them more meaningful and allow my findings to settle in more deeply. with the blues, i had a chance of playing those tunes. 3 simple chords usually. but now i was overwhelmed now with the fabric of jazz chords that seemed other worldly. impossible stuff. but listen to that swing beat. listen to that freedom, like the players were also exporing within their own songs like i was exploring in the cheap bins. they took the listener along on such an infinite thread of soloing and managed to always bring us back in time for the song to end. how did they do that ? what is this shit ? i had learned to play 3D chess about that time, and it was the only analogy that seemed to illustrate this kind of atmosphere in music. tommy flannigan and his elegance. ahmad jamal and his impressive flow and solo prowess. mccoy tyner and his beguiling sophisticated chord combobulations. what the fuck ? i don’t know how or where or when exactly, but somewhere in the dream blur of my youth i managed to see jamal and flannigan live in small jazz clubs. and per usual, i went alone. seeing them live was exactly as confusing as listening to their albums. i had no idea what was happening, but i soaked it up and left the venue inoculated with their pulverizing piano pounce. and a smile. listen to the gershwins’ piano standard “how long has this been going on” in the hands of tommy flannigan. it’s absolutely astoundingly elegant in the hands of such a master.
fourth: ready for the country. billy sherrill was the producer that delighted in simplistic piano passages that became hooks when he tackled the likes of george jones and merle haggard. a small section of every song would have just a moment of piano under his watch. same with the pedal steel or fiddle parts, but the piano always enchanted me. especially the intro parts. listen to “i always get lucky with you” by george jones to pick up on what i’m putting down. so simple and so ear-wormy.
fifth: well sir.. . in the 70s when i was discovering a wealth of piano pathfinders in the cheap-o bin at the local record shop, i also stumbled on to thelonious sphere monk. that was my ultimate reward for such exploration. when i first heard how he handled his particular piece of furniture, it was all over. i had hit pay dirt. there was something extraordinary about this man. he spoke to me the way neil young’s guitar squelch spoke to me. the way clint eastwood’s acting spoke to me.
can you guess what that similar thread could be for all 3 ?
didn’t think so.
no one can figure it. not even me ... for the longest time.
but now i get it.
its their timing.
the exact moment of when they attack a note or a chord or a scene or a phrase. somehow that appealed to my better senses.
monk was the most informed master of time and space when it came to executing his masterpieces. he also had the same dangerous punk rock ethos in him that allow such audacity to portray his particular splendor.
to pick one song of monk’s is redundant. anyone of them will do. any recording at any given time. any of them were so very important to me and my development. .. and my peace of mind.
but to choose one complete album, it would have to be “live at town hall”. why ? i have long ago stopped trying to figure it out. all i know is that i have requested it be the only music played at my funeral. i love the atmosphere of that evening so. something was captured at that recording that hit home. a resilient warmth. an exquisite camaraderie. a brilliance underscored.
later on i discovered an interesting side note to that album.
there once was a photographer named w. eugene smith. he lived in new jersey with his wife and family. something happened to him and he left that all behind and moved into a drafty 6th avenue loft in manhattan. he began wiring up the entire space with microphones and reel to reel recording machines. at some point he befriended new york’s jazz players and soon they would be coming over to his place after they got done with their own gigs. they would jam till dawn. and smith would have the little red record light on.
hall overton was responsible for all the arrangements for monk’s town hall gig, and he chose to rehearse in the days prior at smith’s loft. a large cache of recordings from these rehearsals and a massive amount of photos resulted from those gatherings. thousands of hours of tape. thousands of ribbons of film.
when smith died, it was all left with his wife back in jersey. she placed the boxes in her basement untill it flooded one day and decided to get them the hell out of there. she had a representative from columbia university come haul it all out of there. they ended up shipping it all to tucson arizona to be stored at the university of arizona. that was 1978.
i’ve been living in the same town with all that sonic juju since.
“evidence” - you can start listening to that particular title of monk’s .
... just for good luck, sucker.
- howe gelb
EXCERPT FROM INTERVIEW 1
You have said that Heartbreak Pass consists of three volumes representing two lives for 30 years. Can you elaborate on the structure of the album?
The advent of these volumes lies in their particular cluster. Volume 1 begins the album for the first four songs. A louder volume with intended abandon. A lesser than… A buoyancy… A happiness.
The next four songs represent the second volume at a steadier pace. Pressing forward. Quieter and more understated with hidden strengths. Pedal steel alerts the listener to what they now call ‘Americana’ as well as a directness in lyrics. A clarity.
The final seven tracks lie in volume 3. This is really how the album first started being recorded, songs within a whisper. The heart in turmoil between the worlds at hand. A hushed tone, a moan, dangerously close to a sophistication. A ponder, a prayer… something down there under the surface layer.
How would you describe the atmosphere of Heartbreak Pass?
Worthy of a breadth.